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A conversation with Craig Rhodes

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 25, 2012, at 7:43 a.m.

Some colleagues of Craig Rhodes call him the Wild Man, but it’s not because of his daily behavior at GLMV Architecture.

It’s because he’s the zoo guy.

“I didn’t set out to be a zoo architect,” said Rhodes, a native Wichitan.

Zoo architecture is what he does full time now, though.

Rhodes has an architecture degree from Kansas State University. He was working for WDM Architects in 1994 when the Sedgwick County Zoo became a client.

Rhodes approached Stewart Mann, a late principal of the firm, about doing the work.

“He said, ‘Absolutely. I’m glad somebody wants to do this crazy thing.’ It was so untraditional in terms of what architects do. There was a fair amount of nervousness about it.”

Over the years, zoos became Rhodes’ speciality.

“I’ve done over 100 projects in 28 accredited zoos in 17 states.”

Do you remember your first experience at a zoo?

“I’m actually just barely old enough to remember the Riverside Zoo.

“I remember going into the big building … in the middle that had the carnivores. … I remember looking down into this alligator pit and thinking, ‘Huh, how fascinating is that?’ ”

What was your experience growing up with the Sedgwick County Zoo?

“I loved the zoo and watched it develop. And, of course, I’ve always had a very strong love of nature and a very strong love of architecture.

“I was always fascinated … by the projects they were building at the zoo. The idea of what architecture was was kind of forming in my mind. I really liked the organic nature of what they were doing out there – the buildings, how they kind of nestle into the hillside and how they became … kind of backdrop to the collections, their animal collections. Just kind of the merger of architecture with landscape architecture always fascinated me.”

What did you grow up thinking you might do for a career?

“As a very young child, I was always outside and always was building … forts or tree houses, and for a long time I thought I’d grow up to be a contractor.

“And then I discovered architecture – the design side. … It really fit with who I am to be designing these habitats for these endangered species.”

You’re a big proponent of kids playing outdoors, aren’t you?

“That’s something that kids need to be doing more these days. I would say don’t be afraid to let your kids get dirty.

“We need to play in creeks, and we need to play in the mud and climb trees and don’t worry too much about it. I fell out of so many trees when I was a kid, and I’ve got the scars to prove it, but I’m walking and talking and alive despite all that.”

You didn’t plan on being a zoo architect, though, did you?

“I have in fact done a lot of traditional architecture projects, and I still love those, but I got a chance in 1994 to work with the Sedgwick County Zoo, and that was for their outdoor habitat for chimpanzees and orangutans, which is now known as the Koch exhibit.

“I felt friendship with Mark Reed. Of course, he’s the director at the zoo. He’s my mentor. … He really took me under his wing and taught me his business. As he says, he zooified me.

“The more I learned about their business, the more I loved it. I kind of went into it thinking it might be fun, but I absolutely fell in love with their mission. … The ultimate reason why today’s zoo exists is to preserve, protect and conserve today’s wild animals and wild places.”

What is your role in that?

“As a designer, what I try to do is to … immerse guests, to take them out of their everyday world, immerse them into the kind of habitats that these fantastic animals live in, and with any luck bring the guests and the animals eye to eye. And if somebody can look at a fantastic animal like a gorilla or a tiger or even a snake that close and see the beauty and the majesty of that, then ultimately when they leave the zoo they will be better stewards of the planet.”

What’s your favorite animal?

“The African lion. That was the … second exhibit that we designed at the Sedgwick County Zoo. That was groundbreaking design. … Through that just to see these majestic animals that are really quite dangerous; it was the first animal that I really studied.

“To understand the kind of behavior that they have … I kind of built this personal relationship with the species.”

Next to the Sedgwick County Zoo, what’s your favorite zoo?

“The Bronx Zoo surprises. It’s in the heart of the Bronx in New York City. It’s a larger … very naturalistic zoo, and they do a lot of groundbreaking design.

“They’re leaders in bringing animals and people together. They’re leaders in conservation. … It really is, to me, a model … of a great zoo.”

Is your job as fun as it sounds?

“Of course, some of my colleagues around here disagree … but I always say I’m the luckiest architect alive. I always say everything I learned to do I learned in kindergarten – to go to the zoo and play with colors.”

Anything keep you up at night?

“Besides my teenage kids?”

Anything with your job?

“We work very hard during the day to ensure we’re making the right decisions so we can sleep well at night.”

Speaking of which, what about that glass separating the humans from the animals?

“That glass point is what people always question the most, especially when there’s only an inch and a half of glass between you and an animal that can eat you.

“I get asked that question more often than anything. Is that really safe? Does that really work? What if that broke?”

Can it break?

“What we design is typically three layers of glass, and there’s two invisible inner layers between those three layers of glass, and if any one of those panels breaks, then the animal still can’t pass through that opening, so there isn’t a complete failure of glass.”

What’s one thing few people know about you?

“I get great joy out of going to spin class at the Y at 5:30 a.m. three times a week. … Cause it’s fun. …You get all charged and happy for the rest of the day.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or e-mail her at crengers@wichitaeagle.com.

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